Dr Pell and the Pill of Evil

The Australian gave Dr George Pell some space on Saturday, to write about why the pill has made things worse for women. For those of you who don’t know him, Dr Pell is Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, and he is a Cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church. What he writes is utter tosh.

Dr Pell has three arguments about the pill and its terrible impact on women. First, it distorts the marriage market for women. Second, it makes women have abortions. Third, it makes women unhappy.

Let’s take them one at a time.

In the first part of the article, Pell draws on the work of an economist to show that the pill has made things worse for women, because now men don’t have to enter the marriage market in order to get into the sex market, and that means that women can’t find marriage partners anymore, and even if they do, they’re more likely to get divorced.

The economist Pell draws on is Timothy Reichert. His analysis was published in First Things, which is…

published by The Institute on Religion and Public Life, an interreligious, nonpartisan research and education institute whose purpose is to advance a religiously informed public philosophy for the ordering of society.

It was founded by Richard John Neuhaus, a Roman Catholic theologian. So this is not exactly The Economic Journal, or The Quarterly Journal of Economics. It’s a source that’s highly biased towards the results that Pell wants. As for Dr Timothy Reichert, the economist Pell cites so approvingly: his first degree comes from Franciscan University (the name alone should tell you about the religious orientation of the school), and his masters degree comes from The Catholic University of America. I suspect that he’s got some ideological prior commitments. These days, he works as a transfer pricing specialist. Having said that, his PhD is from George Mason University, and the economics school there is very highly regarded. He is clearly very smart, and very able.

I do not like arguments from authority, so I am not impressed by Pell’s regurgitation of Dr Reichert’s thesis. But if I do not like arguments from authority, then I am also committed to counter-arguments that do not consist only in criticising the authority. However, I am not an economist… Nevertheless, there seem to me to be two serious points to be made in respect of Pell’s use of Reichert’s analysis. The first is that because the pill has enabled women and men to separate sex and marriage, men have put off marriage. Women typically start looking for marriage partners earlier than men do. As a result, there is an age mismatch in the marriage market. And oh noes… women can’t get married because there are no men to marry!

Ah… slow down. Let’s imagine that in the absence of the pill, both men and women want to get married at say, age 20, so that they can have lots of sex. Then along comes the pill. Suddenly, people can have sex without having to get married. Even so, sooner or later, lots of baby lights start flashing in women’s heads, and by say, age 30, they want to get married and have children. Unfortunately, men’s baby lights don’t start flashing until say, age 40. So, there’s a 10 year age gap.

And there’s your answer, Dr Pell. Even if the pill enables men to delay marriage, the consequence is only that women marry men who are somewhat older than they would have been had there been no such thing as the pill. Sure, there’s a mismatch early on, when people may not be able to partner up, but over time, the mismatch sorts itself out.

Dr Reichert, and Dr Pell, assume that the age mismatch means that women have less bargaining power, which results in more divorces as men trade in older wives for younger. But that seems odd to me. If men are older when they start looking for child bearing and rearing partners, and older men are more likely to ditch older wives and start looking for younger ones, then surely that increases the number of men looking for wives. There must surely be an over supply of potential husbands, resulting in increased bargaining power for women, not less.

Even so, since when has the church taught that marriage is a transaction, to be engaged in only for what each partner can get out of the other? Many years ago, when we got married in the Catholic church, my partner and I went to a marriage counselling weekend. We talked about all sorts of issues with respect to relationships, and how to build a successful marriage. Absolutely none of the discussion was about what we could sell to each other. It is absurd to cast marriage as a mere transaction in a market place, and normally, the church does not do so. Except when it’s convenient, eh, Dr Pell?

Second, Dr Pell argues that the pill causes abortion. His argument goes like this. The pill creates a contraceptive mentality. The contraceptive mentality means that we regard pregnancy as something to be gotten rid of. Therefore, people are more willing to have abortions. Therefore, the pill causes abortion.

Personally, I find it hard to understand how something that prevents conception causes abortion. It seems to me that it’s ignorance of contraception that causes abortion. That, and ignoring human nature. The Catholic church teaches that all sex outside marriage is wrong (unless it’s priests raping children, of course). As a corollary to that, Catholic girls and boys don’t need to know about contraception, because they don’t need it, because they won’t be having sex.

Pull the other one.

As it turns out, abortion rates are falling, because unintended pregnancy rates are falling. It seems that over time, access to effective contraception is having exactly the desired effect.

Third, Dr Reichert, and Dr Pell, argue that women aren’t as happy now as they were before the advent of the pill. Ah.. because aside from rabble rousers like Betty Friedan, all women were surely much happier when they were required to be housewives raising children. The happiness gap between men and women has been much discussed: the most plausible explanation seems to be that men are still not stepping up.

A big reason that women reported being happier three decades ago — despite far more discrimination — is probably that they had narrower ambitions, Ms. Stevenson says. Many compared themselves only to other women, rather than to men as well. This doesn’t mean they were better off back then.

But it does show just how incomplete the gender revolution has been. Although women have flooded into the work force, American society hasn’t fully come to grips with the change. The United States still doesn’t have universal preschool, and, in contrast to other industrialized countries, there is no guaranteed paid leave for new parents.

Government policy isn’t the only problem, either. Inside of families, men still haven’t figured out how to shoulder their fair share of the household burden. Instead, we’re spending more time on the phone and in front of the television.

Perhaps Dr Pell would like to factor male responsibility, or lack of it, into his thinking.

As a final little point, Dr Pell points out that Western countries are no longer producing enough children to maintain their populations. Ah… so what? If anything, surely this is a good thing?

In any case, since when has the Catholic church ever been concerned about women? It seems to me that the hierarchy only gets worried about women when it seems that women might just gain a little independence, a little autonomy, a little respect, a little being treated as though they were human beings after all.

8 responses to “Dr Pell and the Pill of Evil

  1. Pingback: Can’t we all just get along? « Craft is the New Black

  2. The nerve of the man! But, who cares what he says anyway? (I know, far too many people.)

  3. Excellent rebuttal and I just love your last paragraph
    Normally I ignore statements from the Catholic church because they knock my blood pressure around , so thank you for your work in this field

  4. Deborah, Pell has regurgitated (wrongly) much of his economic research from Tim Harford’s The Logic of Life (2008), including the line that ‘it takes a woman nine months to make a baby, while it takes a man about two minutes’. Harford was being funny (hence the ‘two minutes’ gag), something that Pell appears not to have noticed, hence the silent edit to ‘ten minutes’. The very obvious poaches are from Harford p 77, but there are some others.

    Even more egregious is Pell’s deliberate decision to ignore the heart of Harford’s research: Stevenson and Wolfers’s major time series study showing that countries with unilateral no-fault divorce have much lower rates of domestic violence, spousal murder and female suicide, and that the relationship with liberal divorce laws is causal. Indeed, the relevant chapter in Harford is titled ‘Is divorce underrated?’.

    Here is the NBER abstract to the Stevenson and Wolfers divorce study:

    If you don’t have access to a university account, email me on helenDOTdaleATbncDOToxonDOTorg and I’ll send it to you.

    A big chunk of my MPhil was on the interrelationship between behavioural economics and law, so I found that article very, very irritating.

  5. Thank you for this.

    I tried read the article by Pell, but my brain shut off after a while. It’s just a tired man’s next ploy after all his other ploys have failed. Sad really.

  6. I thought Pell ‘may have’ described some of the social changes in the past 50-100 years, if you want to look at them from that viewpoint, but I didn’t think that he made ANY case at all for ascribing ANY of them to the pill (anyway, The Pill is not the only means of contraception – as my mother’s stories of Melbourne in the 30s and during the War would attest).

    There was absolutely NO connection between ’cause’ and ‘effect’ – even if one would acknowledge some ‘effects’ to his point of view – which in my mind are doubtful anyway, for the reasons above.

    I was also amazed that he mentioned the ‘ancient’ (or word to that effect) traditions ‘dating from 1900′. Well, I would have thought that social systems dating from 1900 were, in fact, relatively recent in the development of human societies.

    It was just a personal viewpoint, in my opinion, NOT any reasoned case with valid arguments.


  7. In any case, since when has the Catholic church ever been concerned about women? It seems to me that the hierarchy only gets worried about women when it seems that women might just gain a little independence, a little autonomy, a little respect, a little being treated as though they were human beings after all.

    And yet the pews are filled with women, questioning and independent women with minds and opinions of their own. They must feel respected or why would they be there ?

  8. Working to change things from the inside perhaps Paul? Or maybe they go to Church on Sunday, eat hamburgers on Fridays and use contraception and only take the bits of Catholicism that they like?